The Story of How Nobody Wanted Castle Pinckney in Charleston, South Carolina

Once a national monument, Castle Pinckney changed hands many times in a decades-long game of hot potato.

Written by

Jason Barnette

on

April 21, 2019

When George Washington visited Charleston shortly after his election he ordered the construction of a coastal fortification that would later become Castle Pinckney. After serving roles during the Civil War and both World Wars the brick fort would be designated Castle Pinckney National Monument. But after that it became the subject of a decades-long game of hot potato because nobody actually wanted to the fort.

This is the story of how Castle Pinckney was built, the only time it saw action, and how it was transferred to different owners four times before settling where it is today.

Building Castle Pinckney

In 1791 President George Washington embarked on a “thank you” tour of the South after being elected the United States’ first president. On his way to Charleston he rode a boat past a small island in Charleston Harbor called Shute’s Folly.  

Three years later Washington ordered a coastal fortification built on Shute’s. Construction on the masonry Castle Pinckney, named after Revolutionary General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, was completed in 1811.

With the Arthur Ravenel, Jr. Bridge in the background, Castle Pinckney is an unused icon of Charleston Harbor.

Castle Pinckney During the Civil War

On December 26, 1860 South Carolina Governor F.W. Pickens ordered the state militia to take control of Castle Pinckney from a Federal garrison. The garrison consisted of Lieutenant Meade, four mechanics, and thirty laborers.

The next day Colonel J.J. Pettigrew formed a detachment of the Washington Light Infantry, Meagher Guards, and Carolina Light Infantry in what is now Marion Square. They took boats across Charleston Harbor to the fort. Meade saw them coming and ordered the doors to the fort closed and locked.

Prepared for this possibility, Pettigrew ordered ladders placed against the walls of the fort. He scaled the wall and confronted Meade inside the fort. Although Meade refused to acknowledge Pettigrew’s authority and refused to surrender the fort, he also admitted he had no chance of defending it. He asked that the entire Federal garrison be allowed to leave and he abandoned the fort.

It’s the closest Castle Pinckney would ever come to seeing action. With the much larger and more prominent Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie near the entrance to the harbor all the fighting was concentrated away from Castle Pinckney. It was used as a prisoner of war camp for Union troops captured during the Civil War.

When Charleston was captured by Union forces in 1865 Castle Pinckney was abandoned and returned to Federal control.

Transfer #1: Castle Pinckney National Monument

In 1924 President Coolidge designated Castle Pinckney National Monument and placed the coastal fort under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. Nearby Fort Sumter, the more prominent and historical fort, was still under the control of the US Army and used as an active post during WWII (Fort Sumter National Monument was established in 1948).

But almost immediately the NPS admitted they had no funds for restoring or maintaining Castle Pinckney. By 1936 the NPS actively began an effort to sell Castle Pinckney without ever having done anything to establish a presence on the island.

Transfer #2: US Army Corps of Engineers

In 1951 a bill to abolish Castle Pinckney National Monument unanimously passed through Congress. The title of the fort was transferred from the NPS to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

The Corps of Engineers intended to use Castle Pinckney as a storage depot for military vessels patrolling nearby waters. But it was rarely used and by the next year they decided they did not want Castle Pinckney, either.

Castle Pinckney is always a presence. Visitors always ask about the abandoned fort because it is visible from anywhere along Charleston Harbor.

Transfer #3: South Carolina State Ports Authority

In 1957 the South Carolina State Ports Authority purchased Shutes Folly which included Castle Pinckney. The SCSPA intended to use Shutes Folly as a spoil area for dumping dredge material and had less than no interest in Castle Pinckney.

The SCSPA prohibited anyone from landing on the island and therefore Castle Pinckney. Occasionally locals with boats would sneak onto the island to explore the ruins but officially tour boats were only allowed to mention the island without being able to stop.

Did you know? You can see Castle Pinckney onboard one of the tour boats heading to Fort Sumter. The best way to see the remains of Castle Pinckney is to take the tour boat from Liberty Square.

Transfer #4: Sons of Confederate Veterans

In 2011 the SCSPA sold Castle Pinckney to a local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans for a whopping $10. Access to the fort, and only the fort, would be allowed for members of the SCV.

In 2013 the Castle Pinckney Historical Preservation Society, a 501 (c)(3) corporation, was founded with the intention of raising money to restore and preserve the historical fort. But at this point it would take a monumental effort to restore one of the oldest remaining coastal forts in the US.

In 1967 a fire of unknown origin destroyed all the wooden buildings at Castle Pinckney. Since that time the fort has become a breeding ground and home to hundreds of brown pelicans.

It would be great to finally see something become of Castle Pinckney. It was an unused national monument for decades before passing through several owners like a game of hot potato. Nobody seemed to want this fort until the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I hope they can do something with it now.

People in sailboats, dinner cruises, and cargo ships pass Castle Pinckney every single day.

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